GREENWOOD, S.C. (WSPA) – Success comes at a price. And so far in 2021 the undefeated No. 2 ranked Lander Bearcats have paid in full with hard work and a sharp focus on the task ahead.
“We have to get better every single day. Take it day by day, step by step,” added sophomore forward Makaila Cange.
“You see in practice, it’s drill by drill,” added junior guard Sarah Crews. We just want to win what’s in our face first. And that’s our mentality. Whatever’s there we want to win it.”
Following Saturday’s win over Francis Marion, Lander improved to 12-0 on the season. And by allowing fewer than 54 points per game, a team record, the Bearcats defense is leading the way for a program that’s no stranger to winning.
In 45 seasons they’ve captured 11 conference titles and logged 14 appearances in the NCAA Tournament.
But this season’s shut down defense is a new look for a program that’s used to winning with their offense. An adjustment on the other the end of the court has helped produce their number two national ranking, the team’s highest in a decade.
“If we want to win games, first thing’s first is defense,” said Crews. “We preach and work on that every day in practice.”
“It’s painful because I’m an offensive coach, I’m usually the guy coming out ‘let’s lead the country in scoring,’” said head coach Kevin Pederson. “So it’s kind of just been us playing to our strengths. We’ve got two phenomenal post players…and we’ve kind of backed off of our pressure defense a little bit and really focused on the half-court defense. Keep your man in front, as much pressure as you can apply without getting blown by.”
At the center of it all is the program’s winningest head coach, Kevin Pederson. With one more victory, he’ll become the all-time wins leader in Peach Belt Conference women’s basketball history. It’s just another in a long list of motivations for the Bearcats.
“When you’re with coach ‘P’ it’s about winning. And we’re winning,” said Crews. “And just being under that type of culture, that type of coaching, it’s a privilege, honestly.”
“He wants to win and you can feel his passion,” Cange added. “You can feel the energy, you can feel it, and he gives it all to us. He coaches us every day, regardless. He doesn’t coach emotions he coaches players.”
In a season unlike any other, Pederson and his staff have also changed their style of coaching, placing an emphasis on the individual players. They’ve been flexible with players who need a day off, or need more time to focus on their classwork. The program, Pederson said, is trying to acknowledge the personal needs of the players during a pandemic. And that approach is working.
“The only way you can win this year is to control what you can control, which is very little,” said Pederson, who is 324-153 in 16 seasons at Lander. “So we’ve really focused on the player’s mental health, the player’s happiness, and just trying to improve one day at a time.”
“That really comes from the top down,” said Crews. “Our coaches create that atmosphere. When we’re recruited we know you’re coming into a family, you’re a part of a family. Just them instilling that in us, and us just having a good time together on and off the court, it creates that atmosphere.”
With a target on their back, and a handful of games remaining in the regular season, the Lander Bearcats aim to build on their momentum with a chance to repeat as Peach Belt Conference champs and push for the ultimate prize: a national title.
“We don’t want to be the ones chasing anybody,” said Cange. “We’re hunting. We’re hunting. We’re going after the win. So it’s not like we feel the pressure of everybody trying to reach us. We just keep going forward.”